FICTION (July 2018)

Unaccompanied Cello Suite

by Simon Marlowe 

I had been to see my mother, having avoided such a visit for the past six months, and was on my way back down to the south coast by train. You would think things should have been in reverse, that mother should have retired by the sea and I should have been the urbanite toiling away to earn a crust. But the opposite was true. She still worked part-time teaching little urchins how to pronounce words in some semblance of logical order, whilst I had sold my business for a reasonable profit and enjoyed every minute of an early retirement.

However, I was bored, wishing I had invested some of my annual income in one of those tech devices that closet people from tedious journeys and commutes. With the rain lashing down across the windows, and the night barely illuminated by the bright carriage lights, I had at least another hour ahead of me. The dull cross-country diesel plodded along, stopping at every conceivable village and outpost. I was trying to think of some word game or irresolvable philosophical puzzle to keep my mind occupied, when we stopped at another desolate station.

I think the few remaining passengers in our single carriage got off and, as I listened to the beep beep of clunking sliding doors, I heard a passenger behind me get on just in time. There was huffing and puffing, the clunk of a bag hitting a pole, before the passenger suddenly appeared and sat right next to me.

Now this was odd. Every seat in front of me was available and I was sure there was no one left on the train. I used the reflection in the window to identify a young woman, but I was unable to distinguish her face because she dropped her head into her lap. She then put her hands over her head, as if she was trying to block out some intolerable noise.

I wanted to say something, even to ask if I could move, so acute was the invasion of personal space. But as the train moved off and rumbled along over the tracks, I found her sudden attachment strangely comforting. I started to speculate on the notion she was suffering from migraines and was desperately fighting the nauseating demon (I say this because I happen to be a sufferer of the excruciating brainstorm that thunders in without rhyme or reason). I decided to tolerate the intrusion, amusing myself with the thought she may have sat next to me because I was a potential protector if, for instance, someone less savoury joined our carriage. In fact, I even treated myself to a scurrilous projection: older man meets younger woman and begins passionate affair!

Fortunately, her self-induced catatonia suddenly came to an end. She pulled herself back up into a regular sitting position, thrust her hands into her rucksack and pulled out a laptop. It also meant I could get a good look at her. She was attractive, with intense thick eyebrows and dyed-blue streaks in her hair, which curved down smoothly to the edge of a bright red anorak.

By now she had opened her laptop and was looking at what I recognised as musical notation. At the top of the manuscript, in thick black font, was the following title: Unaccompanied Cello Suite.

I hesitated at first, before plunging in.

‘Ah… the cello…’ I said, swaying slightly, as we rumbled over the railway tracks. ‘It’s a great melancholic instrument.’

She smiled without looking at me, then continued studying the screen.

‘I think I prefer the cello to any other orchestral instrument,’ I said, partially to demonstrate that I was not going to be completely ignored having made the attempt to be sociable.

‘Although the violin comes close, if you get the right composer.’

‘There is variety, but nothing which can compete…’ she said, continuing to look at the music, which she appeared to be hearing in her head, as her hands were poised and flowing as if she was conducting.

‘Oh yes, you’re right,’ I said, wondering how best to articulate my lack of knowledge. ‘It is best for expressing those deep emotions; it is not the same as the violin, which can be a bit… light and fluffy.’

‘It depends on how you hear music… how well you understand it,’ she said, retaining a serious, but tolerant, look.

‘Oh, I probably don’t understand it… academically,’ I said, retreating into a self-effacing honesty. ‘I listen to it as I hear it… if that makes sense. I have no technical knowledge, you see. I can’t read a single note on a page; which is a regret.’

‘Then let me teach you…’

‘Teach me! You can’t teach me I’m afraid… it’s too late for someone like me.’

‘I can’t teach you to play,’ she said, turning to look at me, ‘but I can teach you how to listen.’

‘Oh,’ I said, wondering if the offer was genuine or condescension on her part.

‘Would you like to listen?’

‘To what?’ I asked, hoping she wasn’t going to lend me those unhygienic earplugs which get stuck in people’s ears.

‘To my brother,’ she said, rummaging in her rucksack and pulling out some solid-looking headphones.

‘Your brother is a musician?’

‘No, he is a composer and I play the cello. It is his piece on my laptop. Listen to it first… and then you can tell me what you think.’

I was about to say I would only hear it the way I always hear music, which is not particularly well, when she forcefully placed the headphones over my head.

‘Is it long?’ I asked awkwardly.

‘No, not really, not for a solo piece. You need to listen first…’ she said insistently.

I decided to be compliant. I had brought this upon myself, by making the error of trying to talk to someone who was odd, but harmless (although she had sat next to me, so I wasn’t completely at fault). And now I was going to pay the price for the rest of the slow track home.

I smiled, waiting for the music to start. She moved her fingers over the mouse pad and clicked.

The impact was immediate. It was the most gut-wrenching noise I have ever heard, a sound so deep and heartfelt I thought I was being dragged down into the depths of the earth. After the first wave of unadulterated raw emotion, the piece relaxed for a little, but then resorted to sudden discordant outbursts, interspersed with a flurry of notes, which jarred instantly, like a painful barrage of audio arrows.

She was following the notation on her laptop by imitating the movements she would make on the fretboard. But as the piece continued I started to struggle with my concentration. I was now listening to a section where the strings were being plucked, followed by what I can only describe as hideous screeches, which felt like they were digging into my flesh. It was getting hard to listen to. In fact, it had become excruciating, impossible to sustain. She was going to be offended, but I had to take the headphones off, after what I thought was a good effort.

‘It hasn’t finished!’ she said, obviously shocked by my need to discontinue.

‘I know, I’m very sorry,’ I said, as I quickly tried to mitigate. ‘But I thought it was very good.’

She frowned and watched the cursor follow the music as it played.

‘But wasn’t that the point?’ I said, hoping to ameliorate my participation. ‘You were going to help me understand music. Perhaps you can explain its meaning to me?’

‘Not if you don’t listen,’ she said sulkily.

Oh dear… I wondered if I should have seen it through to the end.

Then suddenly the carriage braked hard, forcing us forwards in our seats.

Immediately she slammed the lid of her laptop down, snatched the headphones from me and struggled impatiently to get her equipment back into her rucksack. She was in a clear state of anxiety. I was about to reassure her there was nothing to it, when the PA system intervened:

‘This is the driver speaking. Apologies to passengers for the sudden braking, but this is due to flooding just ahead of the train. Unfortunately, there will be a delay. I will inform Control of the situation and I will need to carry out a track inspection. Please stay in your seats.’

‘There you go,’ I said, ‘too much rain. The river levels must be quite high to come over the tracks.’

I thought my words would be calming but, instead, she jumped out of her seat and, as I turned around, she was already trying to wedge her fingers into the rubber sealant of the sliding doors.

‘What are you doing? Please, Miss, you mustn’t open the doors… it’s too dangerous…’

She didn’t look at me as she used all her strength. The doors were pulled apart and the rain came pouring into the carriage.

‘I have to go…’ she said, as the cold rain rushed in. ‘I need to find my brother…’

‘Wait!’ I shouted.

But she was gone.

‘Christ!’ I said out loud, getting up from my seat.

I looked along the carriage, hoping there was still somebody else on the train. But it was empty. It meant the next course of action was left to me.

She must be emotionally disturbed… mentally ill. There was no rational explanation for why she would think her brother would be out there in the middle of nowhere. But I was the only one who now knew this poor girl had put herself in a great deal of danger.

I stood at the open door with the rain flying into my face, looking out into the pitch-black, the carriage lights barely penetrating the dark below. The sensible thing would have been to follow the track to where the train driver was, but I felt the urgency of the situation required finding her before it was too late.

I levered myself down, stumbling on the ends of the sleepers. I looked along the side of the carriage, but there was no sign of the driver. I stepped down a shallow embankment, spitting out the rain ripping into my face, before finding a firm footing. I shouted, vainly I realised, because nothing could be heard in the atrocious weather conditions. I also suspected that, if I found her, it would be extremely difficult to persuade her to return to the train if she was fixated on looking for her brother. I had a choice to make: either head back up the embankment, get on the train and wait to explain the emergency to the driver, or try looking for her by walking a bit further on.

I was about to absolve myself, on the basis that I would be at risk of injury and harm, when I glimpsed what I thought was movement, not too far in front of me. My eyes adjusted to the thick black curtain ahead of me, and I moved cautiously forward. I could feel my shoes sink into the saturated field. I suspected the river was probably not too far away, but I was taking a battering, water dripping off my face and my clothes soaked through.

I looked behind me to check on my distance from the train. I estimated it to be a good twenty or thirty yards.

I shouted into the wind and rain again.

‘Hello! Young lady… can you hear me? Please… Miss… you must come back to the train… it is too dangerous out here… the train will leave without us if we don’t get back!’

I swore to myself, regretting my act of heroics.

Just at the point where I had rationalised I was making an awful mistake wandering around near flood waters, I heard a sound, a distinct sound, not unlike the initial chord which had gut-wrenchingly introduced her brother’s cello suite.That must be her, I thought.

There was no point in prevaricating. I had made it this far. No harm would be done by venturing a little further forward to where the sound had come from.

I squelched onwards, noticing the grass was longer and above my knees. The darkness was not such an impediment, but the large droplets of rain still attacked my vision.

I tried my best to listen to anything which might indicate a direction to go in. As I strained, even cupping my hands around my ears, I became convinced there was something not too far from where I was standing.

And unusually, bizarre as this may seem, I thought I could hear the distraught, melancholic notes of the cello. 

It must be her, playing the music from her laptop.

I started shouting.

‘Hello! Can you hear me? Are you there? Are you safe? If you are there you must come back to the carriage! It is too dangerous. Please, let me know?’

But there was no response, no sound except for the mordant thrash of the cello, piercing through the cracks in the wind.

She must be there, I thought, not too far from me.

Then I felt my legs give way.

A sudden surge of water came from the side and swept away my feet. I tumbled over and straight into a freezing cold body of rushing water. My head dipped down, and I swallowed the filthy flood waters.

I thought it would be easy to get back up, but I was powerless as the waters began to overwhelm me. I felt my body submerge. It was only a few feet of water, but I became entangled in the thick, long grass. I was struggling to right myself but, the more I fought, the more I seemed to become immersed in the undergrowth. I was running out of breath, eating water, drowning. This was it, I thought, I was going to die. I was praying, thinking about God, thinking about mother.

But something pulled me up. Something saved me and dragged me out of the deluge, pulled me up, so I could breathe… a light shone brightly into my face.

‘Sir are you alright?’

I couldn’t say anything, as I choked and coughed.

‘There you go, Sir… calm yourself.’

Then I spluttered: ‘Thank God!’

‘You can thank him if you like,’ said the torchlight.

I continued to catch my breath, the adrenaline running through me, realising at the same time I had been saved by the train driver.

‘Catch your breath, Sir, there’s no need to panic.’

I felt foolish, as I wondered how I had allowed myself to become trapped in such a small surge of water.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said, wishing I had the energy to pick myself up, ‘I was responding to an emergency.’

‘Is that your own emergency, Sir?’

‘No,’ I said, holding my hand up to shield my eyes from the torchlight. ‘There’s a young girl… I mean a young woman… she jumped off the train and into the fields. I tried to follow her… my mistake…’

‘Nothing wrong with a bit of courage, Sir… at the right time and place.’

I acknowledged these wise words.

‘Can you get up now, Sir?’

‘Yes, I think so… just a bit shocked…’

I could feel his strength, as he rather ungraciously hauled me up onto my feet.

‘What about the young woman?’ I said.

‘Let’s get you back on the train,’ he said. ‘You’re in no condition to do anything about that now.’

He then turned his back on me and marched forcefully away towards the carriage.

I wanted to catch up with him and explain the seriousness of the situation. If I had nearly drowned, she was in terrible danger.

But, on the other hand, he was right: I was a freezing victim myself. He must be thinking one potential casualty was enough for one night.

Back on the train carriage and wrapped in a silver blanket, I was shaking my head, thanking him for saving my life.

‘You should never leave the train when it’s on the tracks, Sir,’ he said, sitting in the opposite aisle, his face reddened, with fierce pockmarks underneath grey stubble.

‘I know,’ I replied, accepting the stupidity of my actions.

‘I assume you were looking for that girl?’

‘Yes…’ I said, expecting to be further admonished for failing to alert him.

‘It’s the two of them,’ he said knowingly. ‘Her and her brother. They give me a torrid time, that’s for sure.’

‘Oh, really…’ I said, wondering what history could possibly connect them.

‘Did she make you listen to that awful music of hers?’

‘I think it’s her brother’s,’ I said. ‘I mean, she said her brother had composed the music.’

He snorted, disparagingly, as I seized the opportunity to explain my behaviour.

‘I’ve got to say,’ I said, ‘I was driven on by what I thought I could hear out there. I mean… the music… I think she was playing it on her laptop.’

He leant over and pointed behind me with his finger.

‘You see that light up there? That’s the parents’ house… halfway up the hill.’

There was a distant light that I hadn’t seen before.

‘She’s a scally that one… won’t wait to get to the station… especially if it’s flooding. She can follow those waters till she gets to the footbridge and then she’ll be back home quick as a rabbit.’

‘You mean she has done this before?’‘Oh yes, those two have been doing it for years. Never stop looking for excuses to stop this train; pulling the passenger alarm, pulling open those doors, just so they don’t have a long walk back to their mum and dad’s.’

He was shaking his head.

‘Of course, it’s all very sad…’ he said, tailing off. ‘But you’ve learnt your lesson.’

‘Lesson?’ I asked. ‘What lesson?’

‘Running off after them!’ he said. ‘Don’t ever do that again, Sir.’

‘No,’ I said sheepishly, ‘but it’s not likely to happen again.’

‘Listen!’ he said agitatedly.

He then leant forward without saying anything.

I was forced to wait for a few seconds, ready to apologise for unwittingly upsetting him.

‘I chased after them once, just like you,’ he said, ‘with the river flooded. Pulled them out of trouble…’

‘Oh my god! That’s terrible.’

‘Yes, Sir. In the local papers and everything…’

‘And you’ve had to do the same again… to save me…’

‘Don’t worry, Sir, that’s not your fault is it?’

It was my turn to pause for thought.

‘They are twins you see,’ he said, leaning back, ‘but the brother is the ambitious one. He gives concerts and all that, but I don’t think he is very successful. No one listens, so they say. Anyway, Sir, I’ll radio Control and let them know of your circumstances. There’s no way through those waters tonight, so I’ll have to back up…’

‘Yes, I can’t stay like this,’ I said, looking back outside. ‘I assume this will need to be reported to the police?’

‘My only concern is the passengers, Sir,’ he said, standing up, ‘and to make sure they get to where they want to go.’

‘Well, yes… but how often does she do this? I mean, where is her brother?’

However, he was abrupt again, ignored me, walked back to the front of the carriage and returned to his driver’s cab.

Perhaps it was a rough night for him as well?

The diesel engine revved and I sat back in my seat laughing to myself at how lucky I was to still be here. Based on the train driver’s experience, it was safe to assume the ‘little scally’ was back home tucked up in bed. At least I had my precious semi-retired life back and mother wouldn’t be left distraught at the loss of her only son.

We reversed back up the line and gathered speed. I inspected the saturated state of my clothes. Whilst I was extremely grateful that I had been plucked from the raging waters, I still thought it odd he had not stated he would contact the police or call for an ambulance. Alright, I was the walking wounded, but I had nearly drowned back there!

As we travelled back, I started reflecting on the traumatic events. The more I thought about it, the more I found it difficult to fully comprehend what had just happened to me. Not only was the girl (or young woman) odd, but so was the train driver. How had he managed to see I was submerged beneath the flood waters? Why was the light of the parents’ house only visible once he had pointed it out to me? And where was this brother? I kept thinking that, somehow, I had done something wrong, not because I had wandered off the train carriage, but because I had failed to do something else, less tangible, but far more relevant.

It took a good thirty minutes or so before I could see we were pulling into a station.

I decided to wait for the train driver to help, when the strangest noise boomed out from behind me. Then I heard the doors opening and, before I had a chance to turn around to see who it was, another person sat down right next to me.

I was shaking now, as I turned to look.

He was looking back at me, his face caked in a grey, pasty mud, dried and cracked, staring at me with the most diabolical piercing eyes.

‘Perhaps now, Sir,’ came the train driver’s voice over the PA system, ‘you will listen!’

Simon Marlowe is an author and artist living and working in London and Essex. His debut novel Zombie Park was published in 2017, centring on the lives of trainee psychiatric nurses, set in the mid-1980s. He says of his writing: ‘I like to create characters who have been cut-off from the real world, enclosed in a less tangible one, which is nonetheless frighteningly gritty and surreal.’

He is working towards the completion of a second novel. He publishes a flash fiction blog Fiction Point where, he says, ‘dark and disturbing tales await’. 

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